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Ex-Nominee Opponents' Treatment Factor

Lujan, Hispanic Caucus Seen Eyeing Gomez, Sanchez for Post-Sohn FCC Nod

Senate Communications Subcommittee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are considering recommending either former acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez, ex-Wiley, or National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts President Felix Sanchez to replace Gigi Sohn as FCC nominee but haven't finalized those picks yet, communications sector lobbyists told us. Several lawmakers have been readying endorsements for the FCC vacancy amid chatter about potential contenders. Lujan and others are calling for President Joe Biden to quickly renominate Commissioner Geoffrey Starks for a new term (see 2303100050).

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Some of Sohn’s staunchest backers believe the way her opponents treated her during the year-plus, fractious confirmation process that ended last week (see 2303070082) may make it difficult for the Biden administration to find a willing replacement candidate for the vacant commission seat. Senators on both sides of the fence on Sohn are, for now, sidestepping questions about how the ex-nominee’s confirmation process will affect seeking a successor.

Lujan’s office and the CHC didn’t comment Monday. CHC backed both Gomez and Sanchez in 2021 (see 2104280057) before Biden nominated Sohn to the vacant FCC seat. Observers have repeatedly named Gomez as a potential leading contender for an FCC nomination. She was among potential candidates the White House quietly vetted last year as a contingency. Biden nominated Sanchez to a CPB board seat just before Sohn decided to withdraw (see 2303060056), so it’s unclear how that existing nomination will affect his chances of getting the FCC nod, lobbyists said.

I hope we can all coalesce around some names” for the FCC vacancy soon, with some senators and House leaders already lobbying the White House on the matter, Lujan said in an interview last week before he made his recommendation: There’s “too much at stake” for the FCC to remain in a 2-2 tie for much longer.

Learning 'Lessons'

I haven’t thought” about how the opposition’s line of attack against Sohn will affect potential contenders’ appetite to replace her as an FCC nominee “since this all just happened,” but “I’m disappointed” at the outcome, said Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in an interview. Sohn “was wrongly attacked” throughout the 16-month ordeal both on and off Capitol Hill. Cantwell noted she strongly urged Biden to renominate Sohn after her confirmation process stalled for most of 2022 (see 2212300044).

I’m hopeful that there are many lessons” the White House, the Senate and other stakeholders “learned through this confirmation process," Lujan said: “I hope that … there’s not time wasted” in selecting a new FCC nominee, as happened when it took the Biden administration more than 10 months to nominate Sohn and now-confirmed FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in 2021 (see 2110260076), “and that we can work in a bipartisan way” to confirm that candidate.

Sohn “deserved better and the public would have been well served” if she had been able to become an FCC commissioner, said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “But I’m not worried that competent telecom lawyers” willing to go through the confirmation process “don’t exist. We’ll find someone who knows the subject matter and can ably represent” the Biden administration’s telecom policy positions.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, one of the Democrats who was steadfastly undecided on Sohn (see 2205050050), cautioned Biden against naming a replacement nominee with a record of past statements “about defunding the police” that she perceived with Sohn. No matter who Biden nominates, “I’ll listen to the confirmation hearing and make a determination if that person is the best fit” for the position based “on their background and experience,” Cortez Masto said.

My hope is that the White House will nominate a progressive candidate in the very near future so that we can get on with the business of confirming someone to make sure we have the full” FCC “that we have been lacking for over two years,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

Senate Communications ranking member John Thune of South Dakota and other Republicans are advising Biden against nominating someone in Sohn’s mold to replace her. Thune told us he wants someone “who isn’t a partisan pick, somebody who will actually be impartial.”

Biden’s pick should be “someone who doesn’t have such a harshly left-wing view of the world and their role” as an FCC commissioner, said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “Everything” Sohn talked about on social media “would have impacted her view as a commissioner.” The White House should more generally “come talk with Republican members” and gauge their view on potential FCC nominees before selecting someone, said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

Not for 'Faint of Heart'

The FCC "is a wonderful place” and “there will be a decent-sized list of potential names interested in being commissioner, but the job is not for the faint of heart,” former Commissioner Mike O’Rielly told us. Former President Donald Trump renominated O’Rielly in 2020 but later withdrew him (see 2009150074). Moving a nomination “can be a very expedited process, but” background checks and other vetting means it will take “a minimum of three or more months” to win confirmation, O'Rielly said.

Consultant Preston Padden, a former lobbyist for Disney and News Corp. who vocally backed Sohn’s confirmation, is among those who believe opponents’ treatment of her is already affecting the search for a new nominee. “I know that Gigi has spoken to a Hispanic person who is a possible candidate who told” the ex-nominee that after what she “went through, this person is not sure she’s willing to go through the same thing,” Padden told us. “I’m no virgin in the dark arts of lobbying, but there is a line you don’t cross. And [Sohn’s critics] drove freight trucks over that line in this case.”

Padden said he emailed Senate Commerce staff shortly after Sohn’s withdrawal announcement to point out American Accountability Foundation ads opposing the ex-nominee featured in Las Vegas last month that he believes the group targeted at convincing panel Democrat Jacky Rosen of Nevada to oppose her. Rosen, who backed Sohn in a 2022 Senate Commerce vote, shifted to being undecided on advancing her this year after the nominee’s Feb. 14 confirmation hearing (see 2302140077).

AAF "made a mockery of the Senate confirmation process,” Padden wrote Senate Commerce aides. The group, which has a history of campaigning against other Biden nominees, cited its spending of “hundreds of thousands of dollars in billboards, newspaper” and digital ads against Sohn as a factor that led to her withdrawal. AAF President Tom Jones previously led the opposition research program for the 2016 presidential campaign of now-Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Democrats need to understand that getting a Democratic majority" at the FCC "will require a concerted effort to ram” a new nominee through the Senate, emailed Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld, who once worked for Sohn.

Opposition to Sohn's confirmation "was never about Gigi personally and always about blocking" a 3-2 Democratic FCC majority, Feld said. “That means that the next nominee will likely face similar personal attacks.” Few people who are qualified and align “with the administration's priorities are going to be willing to put themselves through this meat grinder," he said: Republicans have increasing incentives to block any nominee the closer they get to the heart of the 2024 campaign cycle.

Probably the most discouraging parts” of the outcome of Sohn’s confirmation process include how “the culture wars” factored into evaluating the nominee, said Free Press Vice President-Policy Matt Wood. “The notion that if you say police killing people in unjustified ways is a bad thing, or that Black lives matter,” then “you’re not qualified for a job at the FCC” is concerning. There’s also “clearly a double-standard when it comes to allegations of substantive conflicts” for nominees who “are public interest people,” he said: “If you’ve been against companies, then you have conflicts. But if you’ve come from a corporate background” there’s not the same level of scrutiny.

The White House will probably spend more time scouring the next nominee’s social media posts due to the emphasis Sohn’s opponents gave her past posts, some of which criticized conservative media outlets, and her past interactions with anti-police social media posts, said TechFreedom General Counsel Jim Dunstan. “Agency nominees may go the way of high-level judicial nominees -- you don't nominate anyone who has a rich history of writing on subjects."

Sohn is “a special case in that she has a long history in D.C. that caught up with her" during her confirmation process, said Shane Tews, American Enterprise Institute nonresident senior fellow. She believes the Biden administration may not want to use too many “political chits” right now on the FCC because of the perception Rosenworcel is doing “quite well” with a split commission.